Cal's values will endure

October 05, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHILE AMERICANS remained at war in the jungles of Vietnam and American cities still showed the scars of rioting in the streets, the trees visible beyond Memorial Stadium's open end were full of fall color for Game 4 of the 1970 World Series.

An ovation began building throughout the stands as Brooks Robinson approached the plate in the second inning.

The Orioles led the Cincinnati Reds three games to none, principally because Brooks had turned the series into a personal showcase like few players before or since; and, as if on cue, he answered the fans' acknowledgement with a booming home run.

Brooks Robinson had ascended to the pinnacle of his profession by delivering a magical performance on the game's greatest stage. But as he rounded the bases, he displayed no signs of exultation or triumph. Instead, his look was all seriousness, and the shoe black on his cheeks was streaked with emotion - clearly humbled by the magnitude of what he was in the midst of accomplishing. And the equally choked up Baltimore fans were teary-eyed with joy for a player they regarded as part of their family.

Brooksie was the hometown hero with whom most of us had grown up. Coming to Baltimore as an 18-year-old out of Little Rock not long after the team's arrival from St. Louis, his Arkansas drawl became part of the local lexicon, and his miraculous fielding and clutch hitting became part of baseball legend. He was the personification of the young team that built itself into a champion and endeared itself to a city - superbly consistent and fundamentally sound on the field, gracious and self-effacing in public.

The Orioles' status as perennial contenders, and Brooks Robinson's inherent likeability, in part sustained our sense of community through the upheavals of the '60s and '70s and helped maintain the soul of an old city struggling with changing times. The shared emotions we invested in the team were palpable evidence of the continuing vitality of our civic bonds.

Now another generation has grown up with Cal Ripken and his staggering collection of accomplishments in the employ of his hometown team.

When, in September 1995, he dramatically marked the games in which he tied and surpassed Lou Gehrig's unfathomable consecutive games streak with home runs, the emotional similarities to that day in October 1970 were striking. One of our own had again reached the loftiest heights of achievement in the most demanding of arenas, and had done so with grace and appreciation for what it meant to all of us.

As Cal Ripken plays the last game of his storied career as an Oriole, there is a tendency to downplay the significance of such athletic milestones when compared with the tragedy that has gripped the nation and the difficult road that surely awaits us as we directly challenge the continued imposition of terrorism over our lives. But, as in the contentious '60s and '70s, it's moments like this that profoundly demonstrate the power of sports to inspire and draw us together.

Cal's is a story that should resonate with all of us, because it is much more than the Most Valuable Player awards, Gold Gloves, All-Star appearances and Hall of Fame-caliber career statistics. It is even more than the incomprehensible consecutive games and innings streaks. It is, first, the story of one of us, a kid who grew up with the Orioles, who, as a result of hard work and determination, maximized his talents and realized his dream of playing the game he loved at its highest level.

It is also an account of one of our sons who unwaveringly dedicated himself to carrying out the teachings of his father, the coach who stressed the mundane rudiments of doing all the little things necessary to play the game properly. The extraordinary nature of Cal's success has confirmed for all of us the wisdom to be found in a father's guidance and the value of mastering and practicing the fundamentals required for any endeavor.

Most significantly, it is a biography that validates the merit of showing up day after day and executing the job at hand to the best of one's ability - an affirmation of the simple truth that what is worth doing is worth doing well.

These are catechisms that transcend sports and serve us all well, whether on the playing field, the battlefield or the field of dreams we hold in our hearts for our children, our community and our country.

That collective lump in our throats for Brooks Robinson that long ago October was a manifestation that our common bonds still held firm despite all the uncertainties of the times.

Now, as we rejoice in Cal Ripken's career against the backdrop of the recent atrocities, it announces not only an achievement in sport, but also the enduring vigor of the values that made that career possible, and the endless potential of the community that holds them dear.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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